August 22, 2014

August 15, 2014

Let It Go - Playing at Portobello Film Festival, London

Back in 2010, Vinyl screened at Portobello Film Festival, London. I was lucky enough to be joined by the film's stars, Tom Sawyer and Gillian Leigh Visco.

Now of course, four years on, I'm three more features in the can, but my newest film, co-written with & starring Maria McIndoo is going to be playing at the Portobello Film Festival 2014! 

Let It Go will be screened on September 13 at Westbourne Studios, in the last slot of the night! 

Obviously, as a Londoner this makes me feel extremely proud to be able to showcase my movie back in my hometown. And it's made even more special by the fact that it's Portobello Film Festival that's bringing my work back to the big screen. It really has been too long.

If you're not in London, you can still see the film theatrically in New York City or in LA, and of course, the film is available to download on September 23. All the details can be found on Cinema Zero Distribution.

July 20, 2014

July 06, 2014

A Cinema Zero Power Up

A Cinema Zero refresh.
It's been a little over four months since Cinema Zero first landed, but it's already outgrown itself. The numbers visiting are just amazing, and the feedback has been so positive it's a little insane, really.

Of course, what started out as a simple enough plan - showcase a single film, one at a time - is and will always be, the key focus of the site. But as the awareness of Cinema Zero has grown, so has the remit, and it's time to make everything a little easier to enjoy.

So, on July 30, to coincide with the change over to If We Just Meet from Oliver Guy-Watkins, you'll be seeing a complete refresh of the site, primarily to make it easier to get to the stuff you want.

The new layout will still be focused on the film we're screening - that's massively important, but there will be room to breathe for all the underpinning elements on the site, such as the podcasts and the distribution.

In addition, there will be some new elements introduced to ensure that Cinema Zero remains relevant and of use to all those that are interested in the films and filmmaking, primary of which is a news and features blog. It will be multi-purpose in nature, from showcasing the latest podcast, through to filmmaking articles and even occasional guest posts as well.

There'll be a few other announcements and updates coming down the road of course, but in the meantime, thanks for the continuous support for this little idea I had...


June 23, 2014

Announcing Cinema Zero Distribution

In the handful of months that Cinema Zero has been running, things have really grown and I've learned so much about not just what the landscape is like for indie film, but also just where it seems to be headed. And I'll be honest, after several dozen interviews with filmmakers both on and off-screen, it seems like the future is as uncertain as ever.

The facts remain the same; theatrical reach for indie films is near impossible, DVDs are gaining vinyl status, and it seems as though everyone and their cousin is crowdfunding a movie these days. Recently, I even wrote a thought-piece, asking if festivals were, in essence dead, for the start-up filmmaker.

Essentially, we're all making films and nobody seems to know where to take them next. And that's why I started Cinema Zero.

Our thinking was, that after the festival run, you'd all want a place to hopefully find an audience. And that's still the consensus. But what if you wanted to bypass that festival release all together and use those festival fees better. You know, to at least put them toward making more films. And what if you could see a better return on your film by cutting out the middleman (as in distributors), and actually see the money from ticket sales and downloads? What if you could do what you're already doing, only get benefit better from the hustle?

So that's what we're going to try and do. We're going to start distributing feature films. But not the traditional way.

Here's the plan:
  1. Starting with New York City (the coolest place in the world for indie film) we book a theater for a single night and pre-sell the seats to a film.
  2. If the tickets sell well enough, we book a second date. And again, if that works well, we keep booking. Of course, if we don't sell enough seats, we don't run the screening - it's that simple.
  3. We also make the film available as a DRM-free (play it anywhere, basically) download, which is also available to pre-order, and releases on the same day as the theatrical release. It's also available worldwide.
  4. In addition, anyone buying a seat to the movie theater screening (or screenings), gets a copy of the download on the release date as well.
  5. The pricing is simple: $12 for a theater ticket + download, $5 for just the download.
  6. If the film does well and there's enough word-of-mouth attention, we'll expand the theatrical release to more cities, such as LA and London, all the while picking up write-ups.
  7. The filmmakers behind the movies take 90% of the profits from theatrical & digital release - better than any other standard distribution deal.
Okay. That's the idea. Nice thinking cowboy. Now how are you going to make it work?

Well, there's nothing like putting your money where your mouth is, so we're going to begin with Let It Go - my latest movie as a director.

Beginning with a first screening at Anthology Film Archives on September 23 2014 at 8pm in New York City, Let It Go will also be available to download at the same time. You can find out more here.

The plan is bold, I know. But I think it's going to be awesome too. We'll be open to submissions from filmmakers wanting to go this route soon (along with the criteria necessary for us to take the film on), but we'll be keeping an open dialogue on how it goes.

We've got some cool partnerships coming down the road (more on that real soon), and we'll also be opening up the beta for more filmmakers to join soon. To be notified of when that happens, you can join the mailing list and we'll be in touch as soon as it goes live.

So show some love and support and check out Cinema Zero Distribution and be sure to pre-order your copy of Let It Go.

June 09, 2014

Making Elsewhere, NY

Last September, we wrapped up Bootleg Film Festival once and for all. It had been a long five year journey, covering two continents and six different cities. From Glasgow to NYC, via Toronto and Edinburgh, Bootleg had been a beautiful/mad run from me and everyone involved. In fact, there was a family that came out of it.

Back at Bootleg one, when it was still just me and my one-man-band idea, I got to know some great folks, including Neil Rolland, Cimberly Nesker and her brother, Jeffrey P. Nesker. The fact that five years on, we’d be closing out the festival once and for all, together in New York City, is a fact that none of us could have ever imagined. But there we were, raising one final glass to the hundreds of filmmakers who had been a part of the Bootleg story. It’s incredible how bonds can be built.

But probably even more of a stretch for the imagination is to think that, just a month on, I’d be working alongside Jeff on crafting his debut feature film, Elsewhere, NY.

Truth is, I think the real motivator to this was Neil - our brother in arms as a filmmaker and fellow Bootlegger. Not long before the last Bootleg in NYC, he’d checked in with Jeff, telling him he thought he’d lost his groove. And to be honest, he kind of had. I mean, when we first all hung out, here was a cat who had his stuff so sewn up that he was on a festival burn with his first short proper, Nightclub Story. Back then, if you could have laid money on the next big Hollywood-thing, you could’ve done worse than placing a bet on Jeff Nesker. But the intermediate years, they’d taken their lumps out of him.

Any filmmaker who has ever tried to get a feature greenlit will know this story well, but for the TLDR audience, it sucks. It can be a long, convoluted process of lip-service conversations, networking nights that seem to run into each other, and so many false dawns that you lose all sense of what a real day might actually look like. Basically, as I’ve said before, Development Hell is a real place.

So when I got talking with Jeff post Bootleg NYC, he said that things were still rough, and he was just about done with it. A job had fallen through, and feeling the knock, he knew he had to do something drastic or he was going to drown in his own emotional rut. And this was one that he seemed to have dug himself into over countless years and drafts, trying to get a feature off the ground. But something had changed, and now he wanted into some of what I was doing. He was ready to get into the lowdown and fast filmmaking I’d been doing for a some time, and he was ready to tear up a rulebook he’d been following for longer than might have been healthy. He was coming back to New York.

I wish I could say that the making of Elsewhere, NY was a breeze. I wish I could say it was a walk in the park. It wasn’t. It was tough, brutal and committed work. Did Jeff feel the blows? I think so. But, when he had a camera in his hands, did he bring it? Absolutely.

Before I knew it, we’re at La Guardia, and he’s telling me that he was in my hands to help him get this thing made. We didn’t have a screenplay, just a passing idea - something about a girl meeting a guy, fooling around, and then running into him again a little ways on. As we chewed the idea over that first night, I knew I’d be wanting to get Gillian Leigh Visco onboard.

Gillian, a Brooklyn-based musician, actor and at that point, the veteran of two of features I had made. I knew she could bring the hustle and knew how to work the crazy schedules you have to do when you’re literally shooting for zero. As it was, we’d shot our first feature film together, Vinyl, in just five days, so this was going to be sweatless work. Sort of.

As Jeff and I sat at the bar where Gill worked, we hammered out the beats of a screenplay, figuring out the pattern of a story that we thought would be compelling. We worked out a loose timeframe for shooting, and pretty much hopped to casting and setting up the shoot in the following days. Whatever this was, it was surely different to anything Jeff had done before.

As he hacked away at drawing up casting notices, I funnelled through the screenplay as only I know how; write fast and figure that all the creases will be ironed out in the shoot. By this point, I’d already directed two features of my own that year, and I was in the midsts of lining up a third when Jeff had rolled into town, so moving fast was kind of the rule versus the exception for me by this point. 

Soon, we had the script ready to go, and in between, we’d been looking at our male leads for the film. Credit to Jeff on this one - he knew exactly what he was looking for, and when he pulled up the headshots of the actors we ended up casting, everything was sold. Jeff said to me, ‘These are my guys,’ and you know what, he was right. Jeff had been in town less than a week, and we had our cast rounded out; Andrew Ruth, Andrew Leland Rogers and Fiona Graham. Before I knew it, cameras were rolling.

As I say, the shoot, it was tough. Not because it was being made for almost zero, but I think because all of our lives were just so goddamn busy. Then, when you factor in that Jeff was couch-hopping from my apartment in Queens, to that of his friends out in Brooklyn and even crashing with one of the other actors, it was a true cold-water bath for a guy who I’m sure always thought he’d be getting at least a real bed during his first feature shoot. But don’t get me wrong here - Jeff did it. He sucked it all up and just kept rolling with the punches. The days were long (filming after hours in a bar till almost 6am), and the atmosphere tense at times (I’m not afraid to say we crossed words at times), and the subject matter was pushy. But there was fun too. A lot of it. And like any rollercoaster ride, you get off half-scared, half excited, but wholly exhilarated.

And more than just Jeff turning up and doing an incredible job, I must give a huge shout to the actors. They trusted Jeff and me implicitly. From Gillian who was bold and brave, to Andrew Leland Rogers who had to tear himself down emotionally and even Andrew Ruth, humanizing a character that is a deliberate jerk at times, the guys were exemplary. Factor in the talented Fiona Graham, who also brought a humanity to a character that could have been quickly sidelined.

We shot for over a month from before Halloween, right through to Thanksgiving. And in that time, I saw Jeff fall apart, only to rebuild. He became a better filmmaker than I’d ever seen before, and when he left to go back to Toronto, he had the confidence of a filmmaker who was over being screwed time and again. Me? I was exhausted. I’d delayed my own third feature to see this through, but it was worth it. And in fact, it taught me some humility too. Because, a month or so after Elsewhere was wrapped up, when we started working on Let It Go, I was able to really lean on my tag-partner, Maria McIndoo, and allow her to push me to make something I wouldn’t have made if it wasn’t for shooting Elsewhere, NY.

When I look at the film that Jeff and I and all the team produced, I’m extremely proud. It’s good. Like, viscerally real and weighted in rich performances, and I just know that the story bumps in the chest like a boxer’s fist. And that’s a combination of a lot of things. Acting, a little writing, the visual stylings of a film school student picking up the glass for the first time in a long time and running around New York to shoot verite. But more than that, it was about surrendering to the idea of doing something stupid and crazy and just admitting that whatever it was, whatever reasons he’d let the world hold him back from making a feature, it was all done. Jeff was going to shoot a film the lowdown and dirty way, because the opaque conversations and half-promises weren’t cutting it anymore.

It’s funny, because we just did a week of ADR sessions back in the Manhattan in April, and it was the first time I’d seen Jeff since he’d flown back to Toronto, a hard drive full or footage in his suitcase. This time, he reminded me much more of that confident bastard I’d met back in Glasgow in ‘08. Except there was something a little different, he had a healthy amount of humility as well. 

I remember riding the subway, deep in our month of shooting, rat-tat-tatting possible titles for this film we were making, back-and-forth, back-and-forth. From terrible names, like ‘Green Light, Red Light’, to almost-but-not-quite names like ‘Big Nothing’, we must have considered at least a hundred. Over and over, we were trying to figure out what we were going to call this damn movie. And then I suggested ‘Elsewhere, NY’ and we both got a sense of, yeah, this is what it needs to be. I guess that’s the thing, you spend forever trying to formulate something to be so goddamn perfect, and yet, if you just go do what you want and only worry about the details when they matter, everything will always come good.

May 20, 2014

Cannes Doesn't Want You: Are Film Festivals Dead?

Picture by Alan Light, used under Creative Commons licence —

I got my ‘Dear John’ email last week from a film festival, telling me that, well, with just so many films to programme, and not enough hours in the schedule etc, unfortunately this time, we were not going to be part of their fancy gig.

A hundred-fifty bucks down, and this was just festival number one.

Every filmmaker who has ever sent their film off with a check and a heart full of hopes will know the the pain of the dreaded rejection email. It’s kind of par for the course when you tip everything you have (and almost everything you earn) into festivaling a movie. And despite the amount of knockbacks you’ll get, it always sucks. Death by a thousand cuts and other truisms.

But of course, I’ve been on that other side, writing just those emails, trying my damndest to let people down as gently as possible. It’s not easy.

But when I looked back at that email, I wondered to myself, are film festivals really worth the money?

At the time I’m tapping this out, my Facebook feed is literally awash with photos and status updates from my friends on the croisette in Cannes. I get it. Hanging out with celebrities, drinking your weight in champagne and partying so hard you almost fall off the yacht, that shit is awesome.

But if you think you’re going to be a player out there in the South of France, it’s bogus. Just look at the brilliant Seduced and Abandoned from Alec Baldwin and James Toback for a dose or reality. Or TLDR — unless you’re a relevant somebody, you’re still going to leave Cannes as a relative nobody (except maybe with a bigger hangover).

Sure, there might be some talks and a vapor of hope, but most people who hang out there that can make something happen for your film are doing it just for the suntan and the free drinks, or to announce a deal they actually made about a month ago, because the press-beat is easy pickings.

The simple fact is, it sure ain't what it used to be.

And that’s the same for most cream-of-the-crop film festivals; they are a great excuse for the gilded elite to be seen and feel like the somebodys the world tells them they are — but you? What about you?

You’re not famous, you’re definitely not rich and you don’t have blistering-hot A-listers in your movie, so the chances are you are not going beyond the velvet rope.

So if this is you, the big festivals (you know, the ones the mainstream press actually attend and tweet about) are off limits. In effect, they are dead to you.

Of course, I was already fully aware of it before I wrote up that check, before I posted out the DVDs and before I let my wildest dreams scuttle to the forefront of my mind. But I still sent the film out anyways, thinking, ‘Just maybe…’

But the fact is, at this time, I’m not the Hollywood player the festivals want me to be. I’m an outsider. And there are actually a lot of us out here. So why are we trying so badly to get in a club that doesn’t want us?

Film festivals have been around for more than eighty years, with The Venice Film Festival dating back to 1932. Traditionally, they have embodied glitz, glamor, controversy and change. They’ve given us red carpet moments and shone a silver light back at us on the things we didn’t always know we cared about. From Berlin to Toronto, Edinburgh to Sundance it’s been an illustrious eighty-something years for the prestigious festivals.

But there are now almost than 3,000 recognized active film festivals — 1,735 of which took place in 2012-2013.

Let that last number sit for a moment. Chew on it. 1,735 in one year alone. And these numbers are pulled from Stephen Follows’ brilliant (and exhaustive) study on festivals (of which I was a contributor to his data). When you sift through the readings, you’ll see just how tangled up and messy the whole situation has gotten since Venice screened it’s first film.

Let’s break the numbers down a little more for context: 1,735 film festivals gives us a rough average of thirty-three film festivals happening in any given week. Somewhere in the world, there are a whole bunch of people showing up to feel like million-dollar movie stars. Thirty-three. And when you realize that most of these festivals will not be attended by rich investors, the Weinsteins or even journalists with a following, you do have to take stock of whether it’s all worth the money you’re spending to get your rejections (and a few acceptances of course).

I mean, with thirty-three festivals a week, surely we should all be playing a film festival every other month, right?

Of course, I’m being a provocative bringing this ugly truth up — I am, after all, somebody who ran a festival. But I recognized that it was all becoming stagnant. That the big reasons for hosting a festival were quickly being eroded by the realities of the modern era. That mostly, I didn’t know what we were doing it for — entering or running festivals.

Back in 1932, just about the best way was to show of your celluloid classic via a red carpet and a silver screen. And indeed, the festival was good for the big winner that year, Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, which took two awards (Most Original Story and Most Favorite Actor for Frederic March ). It heaped esteem and shine on that film, and many more since. That's the power of a festival, and the shine remained for decades.

But this was an era before Twitter and YouTube. And the simple truth is, more people will hear about your film via the web than will ever see it at a film festival. Even if you were to be screened at one of these thirty-three festivals each week, they can never compete for awareness in the same way the internet can.

The cool festivals have (mostly) gone exclusive (I’m looking at you 90's era Sundance), or they’ve multiplied to such a number as to almost be meaningless — at least in terms of what they can do for you as a filmmaker.

I know, I know - harbinger of doom and all that. But no. I think rather than this being a suck-ass situation, it’s actually one of opportunity. Festivals as they were may be dead, but what if they could be rethought? What if they could be modernized? Made cool and relevant again? Made less, erm, exclusive? And costly…

Of course, there are already many festivals shaking things up. Some have gone for the online-model, some dropped their entry-fees entirely, and even I’m trying something fresh with Cinema Zero.

The honest truth is, I don’t know what the answer is, eight decades after Venice started. But maybe there isn’t just one answer (or even 1,735). Maybe making a film, scatter-gunning it to as many film festivals as you can (or cannot) afford works for you, but for me, I think I’m done. Don’t get me wrong, I’m still sending it out to (mostly) free-to-enter festivals, or low cost ones, recognizing that they are just as valuable as (most) of the expensive-ass ones. After all, unless I get the movies I’m making in front of large numbers of people (or at least, press), I’m not making much money anyways.

But I'm not kidding myself that a film festival is the only way to launch a film. Instead, I’m trying to figure out how to leverage the reality that, as warm and fuzzy as it feels to make it into a festival, they really are no longer the elixir of a movie's long life.

The fact is, with just so many festivals, I fear we’ve all gotten a little glamor-blind, and it’s probably good to stop paying for the rejections.

Instead, my thinking is maybe it’s distribution we need to resurrect… But that’s another story, and I’ve got some ‘Dear John’ emails to drag to the trash folder.